Beethoven: ‘Happy birthday, Maestro, and thank you for the beauty you have left us’
On the 250th anniversary of his birth, what does Beethoven mean to people and what are their favourite pieces?
On the 250th anniversary of his birth, what does Beethoven mean to people?
“Virginia Woolf wanted to be buried to it”
Marina Carr, prolific and award-winning Irish playwright
My favourite work is the Cavatina from String Quartet No 13 in B flat, I play it incessantly. Virginia Woolf wanted to be buried to it. Apparently this Quartet was the last music he completed before he died. I find it moody, ethereal, suffused with the Eternal and the otherworldly. Amazing to think, he was deaf when he wrote it, maybe Adagios should only be written by those who can no longer hear. Or maybe not amazing at all, as Derek Jarman said when he was going blind: “If Beethoven could write the Ninth without hearing, I’m certain I could make a film without seeing.” And he did. Blue. I adore it and think I always will. I play it when I work and I play it when I play. Happy 250th, Maestro! Gratitude for the beauty you have left us.
“A feeling of wellbeing and high-octane freshness”
John Kinsella, composer and Ireland’s most prolific symphonist in the 20th century
There is one movement in all of Beethoven’s output, the first movement of his A minor String Quartet, Opus 132, which has been a special part of my life for over 70 years. To this day it fills me with a feeling of wellbeing and high-octane freshness. It also has the calm strength of experience and points to a landscape of unlimited expressive possibilities.
“The thrill of daring to imagine, even for a moment, that another reality is possible”
Tom Creed, theatre and opera director
My favourite work is Gott, welch Dunkel hier, from Fidelio. It took 10 years to rebuild the Vienna State Opera after the second World War, and it reopened on 6th November 1955 with a performance of Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, conducted by Karl Böhm. On 7th October 1989, it was performed in Dresden on the 40th anniversary of the founding of East Germany, while protests raged nearby, and the audience applause after the famous prisoners’ chorus brought the performance to a halt. Four weeks after that night, on 9th November, the Berlin Wall came down. What is it about this opera that speaks to us at times of great change around this time of year?
There’s a moment at the beginning of the second act where the political prisoner Florestan has a vision of his beloved Leonore, who, unbeknownst to him, has come to the prison in disguise to liberate him. He imagines her as an angel who will lead him to freedom – “zu Freiheit, zu Freiheit”. The German word “Freiheit” means personal freedom, but also political freedom. There’s a recording of the great Canadian tenor Jon Vickers singing this defining role of his, where he suddenly speeds up, just as he repeats this word for the last time. “Freedom, freedom.”
It’s the thrill of daring to imagine, even for a moment, that another reality is possible. These days, I can’t get it out of my head.
“The symphony of our time, full of intensity and passion and hope for the future”.
Dr Patrick Geoghegan, professor in modern history at Trinity College Dublin and presenter of Talking History on Newstalk
“I love the string quartets, early period, middle period, and late, and thought I would pick one of them. But the truth is that whenever I am feeling in need of inspiration I return to the symphonies. For this I’ll pick the Seventh Symphony, not because it is the greatest of his works, but because it is a symphony for our time, full of intensity and passion and hope for the future. It inspires us to try and do better. It makes us believe we can overcome, no matter what the challenge. We could listen to worse on the 250th anniversary of his birth.
“There’s hardly anything better”
HE Mrs Deike Potzel, German ambassador to Ireland
Beethoven’s wonderful, complex, emotional music keeps bringing a lot of joy to my life and has in times of the current pandemic filled some long evenings with its tremendous beauty, mastership and warmth – lifting spirits, touching soul and heart. As I am a huge fan of the piano, my favourite piece would have to be Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor, Op 37. Each time, I am so touched by its beauty, richness, joy, elegance and forcefulness. The agitated first and third movements bridged by the exquisite, lyrical Largo – isn’t this second movement just so immensely romantic, sensitive, intimate, soulful, touching, calming and uplifting at the same time? There’s hardly anything better!
“Gave me the all-important start to my professional singing career”
Sharon Carty, Irish mezzo-soprano and artistic partner, Irish National Opera
I adore the Beethoven piano sonatas that I played as a piano student, but it’s the first piece of his which I got to sing, that means the most to me. The wonderful quartet Mir ist so wunderbar, from his only opera, Fidelio, is so masterful in using the same musical motif to express such a range of different emotional subtexts, all of which intertwine into a stunning piece of vocal music. I got to sing it more than 10 years ago as a student, as part of a summer academy in Germany, when a soprano who was due to be on the course dropped out, and I was asked to step in to sing it. The final performance (which included this quartet as well as other arias and ensembles) was what led to me being invited to join the Opera Studio at Frankfurt Opera, which gave me the all-important start to my professional singing career!
“Makes we want to cry so joyfully”
Ian Robertson, clinical psychologist and neuroscientist, currently emeritus professor of psychology, co-director Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity College Dublin
The slow movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto often makes me cry. I have an image of him with pillows pressed to his ears in a Vienna basement, trying to protect the remnants of his hearing from Napoleon’s cannon blasts. It was 1809, the year he began composing the piece, and one he would never perform because he couldn’t hear his own music any more. It’s the trickling, wistful sadness of the downward-cascading notes in the opening bars that first catches my throat. But then what really gets me going is the sense of fragile but defiant joy that gradually emerges over the mere nine minutes of the movement. But it never quite shakes off that sadness.
Because Beethoven was very, very lonely. He had a difficult personality, crippled with shyness, very bad tempered and with an odd appearance. He was plagued with illness and bouts of melancholy. But most of all, from when he was quite a young man, he was steadily losing his hearing. In 1802, he wrote in the famous Heiligenstadt Testament: “Though born with a fiery, active temperament, even susceptible to the diversions of society, I was soon compelled to isolate myself, to live life alone… Yet it was impossible for me to say to people, “Speak louder, shout, for I am deaf.”
Yet this lonely, irascible, pain-stricken man inhabited an interior world of such exquisite beauty, which is what kept him alive: “Such incidents drove me almost to despair; a little more of that and I would have ended my life. It was only my art that held me back. Oh, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had forth all that I felt was within me..” It is this determined commitment to life in that slow movement that makes me cry so joyfully.
“Moonlight Sonata, remains my favourite…because of the memories it invokes”
Olwen Fouéré, creative artist and actor in theatre, film and TV.
“Of what I know of Beethoven’s music, the first movement of his Piano Sonata No 4, otherwise so very well known as the Moonlight Sonata, remains my favourite. Not only because of the music, because of the memories it invokes. My parents occasionally played a recording of it on winter nights while we, their children, sat by the fire in our home on the edge of the Atlantic, quietly inducing us to the simplicity of transcendent listening. The Moonlight Sonata later played at the funeral of one of my favourite uncles, my mother’s brother, TonTon Pierre Mauger, and later again at the funeral of our beloved mother, Marie-Magdeleine Mauger-Fouéré.
And I remember another transcendent moment when, at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in 1983, my bedroom was directly next to the music room. At that time, the piano stood solo in a gloriously empty white-walled room with a wooden floor. I woke in the night to the piano being played, ever so gently. It was Patrick Mason, director of our 10-day workshop of plays by four emerging playwrights, taking his own quiet moment with the Moonlight Sonata. His playing of it was sublime and I’ve never forgotten it.
“A kiss to the whole world!”
Gavin Maloney, conductor with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra
On a scorching July morning I stand at the entrance of the Secession Building on Vienna’s Friedrichstraße. I read the golden inscription on the wall: VER SACRUM. The Secession Building is home to Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze. Sometimes regarded as the key to his art, Klimt painted it for a 1902 exhibition in celebration of Beethoven. It’s a sort of modernist allegory of Richard Wagner’s reading of the Ninth Symphony, in which mankind is saved through the mediation of art and love.
It’s terribly difficult to put into words what Beethoven’s symphony means to me. This is generally the case with music. Thankfully we have Friedrich Schiller’s words, “Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt!”. A kiss to the whole world! I spent some hours with the uncanny, dazzling images Klimt had painted onto plastered wooden lattice. As I climbed the basement stairs and stepped out into the glittering summer light, I turned once more to the inscription on the wall.
Why is the Ninth Symphony my favourite of Beethoven’s works? Because it is my ver sacrum, my sacred spring.”
“A key to unlock the door to the relaxation room”
Mary Wilson, presenter of Morning Ireland on RTÉ Radio 1
The first time I listened to Beethoven I was sitting on a hard chair in a large draughty assembly hall in my secondary school. Sr Brenda was introducing her first-year students to musicianship, a rather genteel-sounding subject pitted against art in the curriculum. Most young girls in 1970s rural Irish schools might already have a few years of piano lessons behind them, but it was more O’Donnell Abu, Chopsticks. And of course we all learned to murder the Blue Danube. But Sr Brenda introduced us to this fascinating German man with the sad and lonely life and I was initially more taken by the man and his story than the music. She told us he wrote nine symphonies, and we should learn their names but particularly concentrate on the Fifth, the Sixth or Pastoral and the Ninth, the Choral. She played the Choral for us on her small music system and sometimes to emphasis a point or musical structure she would play along on her upright piano.
Many, many years later when I regularly rushed from work in RTÉ to a Friday night concert in the National Concert Hall, the National Symphony Orchestra acted like a balm on the cares of the week. Classical music, whether the work of Beethoven, or one of his fellow composers, acts like a key to unlock the door to the relaxation room. It has brought me to venues far more salubrious than my early school assembly hall, but it was there that I first met Mr B.
I’ve enjoyed his music at the Kilkenny Arts festival, in the sacred surroundings of St Canice’s Cathedral, on a Sunday morning in wonderful Wigmore Hall in London, and in great Irish houses like Kilruddery. It’s not always Beethoven but it is always beautiful music and it all started with the Choral Symphony in Ballingarry.
“It’s as if Beethoven has a primal mainline to our hearts and minds”
Eimear Noone, Irish composer and conductor
As a student at Trinity College music department, Simon Tresize, my then lecturer – and at the time, a recordings reviewer for one of the major British classic music magazines – suggested I treat myself to a box-set of Beethoven recordings by conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. I remember heading upstairs to Bernard Clarke in the classics department at Tower Records – with whom I loved to debate the nerdier nitty-gritty of recorded music – and blowing a week’s student-food budget on the box-set. Thus began a lifelong love affair with Furtwängler’s Beethoven.
As well as I knew the symphonies, I felt that in this conductor’s hands, I was hearing them for the first time. I threw on the Seventh Symphony as I readied myself for some student party or other and was at once stunned by the performance. By the time I got to the second movement – the Allegretto or “Funeral March” – I had to sit on my bed, lest my physicality distract from the sensory trip on which my brain had departed. I had left “listening” behind and instead, found myself walking through the three-dimensional structures of the piece. In that moment I fully understood Goethe’s assertion that “architecture is frozen music”. The relative raw simplicity of this movement only serves to heighten its captivating dramatic hold on us. It’s as if Beethoven has a primal mainline to our hearts and minds. Thanks to Beethoven, I never did make it to that party...
“An exploration of peoples’ journeys and emotions in a world not dissimilar to our own”
Vivian Coates, artistic director of Lyric Opera Productions
Lyric Opera Ireland was fortunate to present Fidelio last February in association with the NCH, SinfoNua and Carlow Choral Society before Covid-19 hit our shores. As a director of some 30 years now, this opera is an exploration of peoples’ journeys and emotions in a world not dissimilar to our own at present – despite a lapse of 200 years. While working on such an extraordinary piece, the truth is finding the humanity, the understanding and the learning in the various characters as it takes them on a path of trust, revelation, loyalty and above all – love. Each character weaves it way through self-exploration amidst deceit, corruption and evil.
With the genius of Beethoven’s pen, this sublime score is elevated to another level and becomes a powerful amalgamation of music and drama. Not only is the principal singing exceptional, you are then elevated to the very end of the opera with the dazzling chorus work where good triumphs over evil. A joyous and effervescent finale to and opera that explores the very depth of human emotion.”
“Incredible beauty, tenderness and intimacy”
Finghin Collins, pianist and artistic director of New Ross Piano Festival and Music for Galway
“Beethoven’s output is so vast and so significant that it is almost impossible to choose one’s absolute favourite piece, so I have chosen Beethoven Piano Sonata in E major Op 109 as I have been learning it over the past while. It’s a glorious work, the third-last of the 32 sonatas it contains music of incredible beauty, tenderness and intimacy. It has a most unusual form, as Beethoven continued to move away from traditional forms. Two short movements (one inward-looking and at times anguished, the second outward-looking and full of anger and rage) are followed by a most beautiful theme and variations in E major. Here is some of Beethoven’s most song-like and emotional music, with the occasional outburst of Angst to break it all up.
One of my favourite moments comes at the very end when he repeats the theme again, rather like Bach does in the Goldberg Variations. It makes for a simple, but very moving, conclusion to this concise, dramatic and heartfelt sonata.
Claudia Boyle, Irish soprano
One of my all-time favourite works by Beethoven is the third movement from his Ninth Symphony. As a soprano waiting to sing in the final movement, I am perpetually captivated by the rapturous beauty, unravelling delicacy and profound emotional depth of the adagio. Transcendent in its power, this is Beethoven at his finest. A magnificent set of winding and evolving variations revealing his capacity for exquisite sentimentality.
“Profound, spiritual, magical”
Barry McGovern, one of Ireland’s best-known actors in stage, film and television
My favourite Beethoven piece is his last Piano Sonata in C minor, Opus 111. It is a great summing up of his remarkable writing for his own instrument, the piano, although the wonderful Diabelli Variations were yet to come. Beethoven was never really finished with anything. The first movement’s majestic opening, full of determined ambivalence, stutters out various chords until, in bar 11, we come to settle on the movement’s key, C minor.
Beethoven loved the forms of Fugue and Variations, and in this sonata he plays with these forms magnificently. The main rock-like theme of the first movement is contrasted with a theme of great tenderness. After all the sturm und drang, the movement ends gently, setting us up for the ethereal second and final movement. This movement is a set of variations on a very simple theme. But this simple theme is treated in the most stunning way, with extraordinary rhythms and very busy accompaniments.
Most of the variations are gentle, but one, in the very unusual time signature of 12/32, is startlingly modern, almost jazzy, and quite demonic in its syncopation. But the last few pages transport us out of space and time to another realm. Over long sustained trills and rolling demisemiquavers in the left hand, the simple theme floats serenely over all, ending, after a restatement of the opening three notes of the theme, in a simple pianissimo C major chord. Profound, spiritual, magical.
Malcolm Proud, Kilkenny-based harpsichordist and organist
During my childhood and most of my teenage years Beethoven was my favourite composer. Since then my tastes have changed but there are a few of his compositions which have remained as favourite companions, chief amongst them being the Hammerklavier Sonata, Op 106. The sheer scale of this masterpiece is awe-inspiring. Right at the opening, Jupiter hurls his thunderbolt and one feels Bach himself must have been guiding Beethoven through the contrapuntal labyrinth that is the concluding Fugue. In between is the witty Scherzo with its canonic trio section, followed by that most tragic of slow movements.
Not a work for the faint-hearted, presumably the reason why it is seldom found on piano recital programme.
“I could not imagine life without his string quartets”
Ciara Higgins, head of artistic programming, Royal Irish Academy of Music and artistic director Great Music in Irish Houses
There are numerous composers whose music I turn to in times of both solace and joy but my “desert island” choice is Beethoven. His extraordinary output has been an important part of my life from an early age and whilst it is an impossible task to highlight one work by the master, his string quartets are the works I could not imagine life without.
And so if I must choose one, it is his Op 131 String Quartet as it evokes memories of a deeply moving performance of it by the Quatuor Ébène in Castletown House as part of the Great Music in Irish Houses Festival. In these difficult times, I am so grateful for the happy coincidence that is the release of the Ébène Quartet’s live recording of the complete cycle, which has not only brought such comfort but happy memories of one of the greatest performances by a string quartet I have been lucky enough to experience.
“It reflects both the anxiety of the Napoleonic wars and the extremes that existed within the composer’s mind”
Paul Herriot, presenter of The Lyric Concert, RTÉ Lyric FM
Goethe once described the music of Beethoven as “the distillation of an utterly untamed personality”, and that was never more apparent than through his contribution within the symphonic form, a form that he did so much to develop and harness within his own era. For me his Symphony No 7 is the perfect example. Sitting as it does between the hugely popular “Pastoral” Sixth and the final “Choral” Ninth, it might well have slipped the radar, but there’s no chance of that here.
Richard Wagner once described Beethoven’s Seventh as the “apotheosis of dance”, and completed as it was in 1812, from the iconic Allegretto to its joyful final two movements, it reflects both the anxiety of the Napoleonic wars and the extremes that existed within the composer’s mind at the time. Apparently it was one of Beethoven’s favorite works, and it’s certainly one of mine. I’ve had the great pleasure of introducing it on several occasions, one of the most memorable, earlier this year in the NCH with the RTÉ NSO under the direction of the great American conductor Leonard Slatkin.
The National Concert Hall’s Beethoven 250 Series, featuring leading Irish musicians and ensembles, begins on Friday, December 11th with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and continues December 20th. Most of the concerts fare ree to view on NCH YouTube and Facebook Channels. See www.nch.ie for details.
Irish Chamber Orchestra streams a concert of Bach, Beethoven & Deane on December 17th. Irishchamberorchestra.com and RTÉ Lyric FM’s Classic Drive with Lorcan Murray continues its tribute to Beethoven’s 250th anniversary by playing 250 Beethoven pieces over 250 days.